January 8, 2016

HARDY CAMELLIA - JANUARY PLANT OF THE MONTH

I've written about my Camellias before (here and here) but this year the big red one beside my basement door has more buds than it's ever had - ever! My picture doesn't show them as well as I hoped but maybe you get the idea. This is one of 3 camellias I have in my yard. It is the happiest one because it is next to my heat pump where the water drains out, in front of a brick wall that holds in some warmth and near a privacy fence that provides wind shelter. It is huge and beautiful for about a month when it blooms - usually January when the world is otherwise brown.
Almost ready to bloom (Dec. 28)


The first bud is beginning to open

I don't think I've talked about what makes them happy. The following information came from Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, NC. They grow and sell the most varieties I have found in the US. Remember, I live in zone 6B and the ones I have are the winter hardy varieties. I recommend these folks if you want to purchase a Camellia for your own yard.


Recommendations for Growing Camellias

The most important consideration when SELECTING A SITE to plant a Camellia is good soil drainage. The site must not be a place where the soil stays wet because the plant can get root rot. A marginal site where brief periods of wet soil can be improved with a raised bed, but soggy areas should be avoided.

Winter sun and winter wind should be avoided if at all possible. While Camellias are dormant, they are susceptible to drying in sunny and windy conditions as they cannot restore lost moisture in the leaves. In general, half a day of sun or filtered light is best. I avoid deep shade, although Camellias will survive, they do not thrive in very shady areas, and most likely will not bloom. I also avoid full sun as the foliage tends to look yellow in the wintertime. In general, C. sasanqua will grow in full sun and look well, and have an excellent floral display.

I recommend making a bed of improved SOIL about 4-5 feet across by tilling in a 3-5 inch thick layer of compost. Any well-aged organic matter will work, including soil conditioner, aged manures, or leaves which have broken down. This will make a slightly raised bed and the plant can be planted so the top of the root ball is even with the soil surface. I avoid digging a deep hole which can settle and let the root ball sink lower than the ground level. If your soil is heavy clay left from construction of a new home, more compost over a wider area will help make your plant happy.

WATERING is necessary the first year until the plant establishes roots into the surrounding soil. I check the soil near th4 base of the plant and water when this starts to dry out 1/2 inch down. Usually, about 1-2 times a week in summer. A good deep watering which soaks the entire root ball is necessary; a ridge of soil forming a well around the plant allows the water to soak in slowly.

FERTILIZE lightly in early spring with any garden fertilizer such as 10-10-10. I use the lowest recommended rate since it is easy to burn Camellias. Organic or slow-release fertilizers work well since the nutrients are released over a longer period of time. Several light applications are OK until about July 4th when we stop fertilizer to discourage tender growth in the fall (which may freeze). For rapid growth, regular water seems to result in more growth than excess fertilizer.

The BEST TIME TO PLANT is early fall or spring. In milder areas, they can be planted all winter long. They can be planted in the summer as long as their water needs are met. After planting, if a late frost is predicted, cover the plant with a garbage can or a box and it will usually be fine. The advantage of fall planting is the plant can establish roots and require less water in the summer, although it will still need water if it does not rain regularly. In colder areas, spring planting avoids winter injury on smaller or tender plants, which can then become acclimated over the first summer.

PRUNING is not necessary, although Camellias respond well to pruning. When pruning, it is necessary to remember that Camellias (both fall and spring bloomers) form flower buds in May or June, so summer or fall pruning can remove flower buds. The buds are visible by late summer as fatter buds, compared to the narrow growth buds. To avoid cutting off flower buds, prune after blooming (winter for fall bloomers; March/April for spring bloomers). We have a sing-song way to remember"Prune after bloom or before June..." Light pruning in early summer is good for shaping the plant since more growth will come out the same year. For example: removal of long, whippy growth or stray branches in early summer helps shape the plant which should send out a dew new branches just below the cuts. Removal of large branches or shortening the plant significantly should be done in winter when the plants are dormant. Camellias will regenerate quickly, so even cutting the stem down to a few feet results in a nice bushy plant in a few years. I think letting the plants grown to a natural height of 15 feet or more is best.

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